Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures: supersession is rare in the Indian military hierarchy, and experience in heading an operational command is normally a prerequisite for becoming the Chief of the Naval Staff. The Indian Navy’s new chief, Admiral R.K. Dhowan, who was slated to retire on May 31 on turning 60, has neither headed an operational command — as was the case with a couple of others before him — nor is he the seniormost officer. But the Defence Ministry recommended the name, and the Prime Minister approved the choice. The Indian Navy, navigating the most turbulent course since its inception, finally has a helmsman, 50 days after the resignation of a competent Chief of the Naval Staff, D.K. Joshi. Admiral Joshi had 15 months of service left, but in the wake of a series of accidents, including one involving the submarine INS Sindhuratna in which two naval officers lost their lives and several others were injured, he tendered his resignation. In fact, most of the recently reported accidents in the Indian Navy happened at its largest hub, the Western Naval Command. Naturally, the chief of the Western Naval Command, Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, who is senior to Admiral Dhowan, was overlooked.
Admiral Dhowan will have a 25-month tenure as chief, with an opportunity to shore up sagging levels of morale, put in place contracts to replace ageing equipment, and chart a course-correction. He has addressed one issue that has plagued the service by saying that his force would strictly follow standard operating procedures without resorting to any shortcuts. “It will be my endeavour to pull on the holes together while keeping a hand on the tiller to ensure that we run an efficient, a taut and a happy Indian Navy,” he said, after being named. It is a fact that the Navy’s submarine fleet is aged — only one of its existing 13 diesel-electric conventional submarines is new; the rest have been in service for 20 years or more. Delays in production and acquisition, and the Defence Ministry taking inordinately long to clear proposals, has reduced the fleet strength. There are huge operational gaps when it comes to submarines, helicopters and minesweepers. The Navy’s future will depend on the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment and spares with minimal delay. Admiral Dhowan will have to pursue procurement issues with the Ministry with the same vigour and enthusiasm that Admiral Joshi had pursued them, and use all the resources at his command to push new acquisition projects with the new government. He has a well-defined task at hand. His tenure will shape the course in which the Indian Navy will sail.